WASHINGTON -- They last were seen bounding up the silver left wing of their Lockheed Electra, navigator Fred Noonan clutching Amelia Earhart's left hand to help her from the ground. Then they eased themselves into the cockpit and slammed the hatch shut.
In a matter of moments, the Electra roared down a 3,000-foot New Guinea runway before slowly rising above the Huon Gulf, skimming so close to the waves that water sprayed the wings. The Electra was off on its 2,556-mile journey across the Pacific Ocean to Howland Island, one of the final legs of Earhart's daring effort to become the first person to circle the world at the Equator.
Those gathered at that airfield on the morning of July 2, 1937, were the last people ever known to have seen Earhart, Noonan or the gleaming, all-metal Electra. Sometime during the next 20 hours as they searched for tiny Howland Island, the flyers and their plane vanished, launching a baffling mystery.
Seventy years later, Earhart is simultaneously an icon and elusive American legend. At a time when pilots were afforded rock-hero status, her fame in the 1930s was unmatched -- the woman who dared to live exactly as she pleased and who liked to say, "Women must try to do things as men have tried."
Yet because she was so famous, scores of people have had difficulty accepting such an unromantic end as the Electra's running out of fuel and crashing. Because no trace of plane or flyers ever has been found, Earhart has been the object of a frenzy of speculation about how she died, with theories ranging from the plausible to the bizarre.
The late and indefatigable CBS newsman Fred Goerner argued that Earhart and Noonan safely landed in the Marshall Islands, where they were captured by the Japanese and died as prisoners. In the early 1960s, Goerner made four trips to Saipan, where he interviewed dozens of Saipanese who reported that before World War II, Japanese soldiers on the island held a white man and white woman with short hair. At least one witness identified a photo of Earhart.
Others, such as Ric Gillespie, executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery and author of the 2006 book Finding Amelia, contend that Earhart crash-landed her plane off a reef near Gardner Island, about 400 miles south of Howland, where she and Noonan died of thirst or hunger. Gillespie, regarded as a serious investigator, plans an expedition to Gardner next month in an effort to uncover clues of the lost Electra.
Then there have been the theories that can charitably be described only as peculiar. They range from Earhart's returning to the United States and assuming another identity to her being taken to Japan and broadcasting propaganda as Tokyo Rose.
Yet a growing majority agrees with Sally Putnam Chapman, granddaughter of Earhart's husband, publisher George Palmer Putnam. "She ran out of gas and went down, no two ways about it," said Chapman, author of Whistled Like a Bird: The Untold Story of Dorothy Putnam, George Putnam and Amelia Earhart.
"I don't think anybody wants to hear that side of the story," Chapman said. "It was cloudy that day, she couldn't see the island, she wasn't sure where she was and went down."
At the center of the mystery is Earhart, a remarkable and audacious woman who would be a comfortable fit in today's America. She was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, established a woman's record for the fastest nonstop flight across the United States, and was the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to California.
She wrote three books, wrote aviation articles for Cosmopolitan and Redbook magazines, appeared in newsreels and spoke about women's rights at Purdue University. She endorsed a line of luggage and helped design comfortable Amelia Earhart clothes that were sold at Macy's.
The Navy named a new ship after her this year. At Purdue, you can see the suede jacket she wore during her flight across the Atlantic and the small ice pick she used to open cans of tomato juice on her flights. One of her planes rests at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and her picture graces a 1964 U.S. airmail stamp.
She was so famous that Port Columbus officials arranged for her to attend the three-day dedication of the new $850,000 airport in July 1929. Earhart arrived from New York by train, and as a hard rain pelted the airport, she climbed aboard a Ford Tri-Motor for a flight to Oklahoma.
A month and a half later, when Earhart and 14 other women landed in Columbus as part of a California-to-Cleveland air race, more than 20,000 people showed up, many breaking through police lines to swarm about the airplanes.
She was just part of a wave of women who helped transform America in the 1920s and '30s, such as magazine editor Clare Boothe Luce, pilot Louise Thaden, actress Katharine Hepburn and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Frances Marion. They firmly rejected the traditional role reserved for women and aggressively pursued careers.
"She set the pace for women at a time when women had babies and stayed home," said Donald Goldstein, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and co-author of the 1999 book Amelia: A Life of the Aviation Legend.
Like Hepburn, Earhart wore slacks. Like many glamorous 1920s screen stars, she cut her hair short. She bore a slight resemblance to Charles Lindbergh, which earned her the nickname "Lady Lindy," a moniker she reportedly disliked.
She helped form the Ninety-Nines, the first women's flying organization; urged President Herbert Hoover to support an equal-rights amendment; and refused an invitation to attend the 1934 National Air Races in Cleveland because women were not allowed to compete.
She loved Putnam but married him reluctantly, having described marriage as a "cage" and "living the life of a domestic robot." On the day of their wedding in 1931, she wrote Putnam a letter promising not to hold him "to any medieval code of faithfulness to me, nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly," concluding by asking Putnam to end the marriage in a year if they were unhappy.
With Putnam the ingenious promoter and Earhart the gifted pilot, they formed a modern marriage, almost a business partnership. Many biographies of Earhart treat Putnam harshly, suggesting he pushed her into the risky round-the-world flight.
But Earhart needed no encouragement from any man. She thrived on a challenge, and circling the globe at the Equator was the ultimate flying test. Wiley Post had twice circled the globe, but he flew the shorter and less demanding northern route over Canada, the Soviet Union and Alaska.
After a crash in March 1937 during takeoff in Hawaii aborted her first effort, Earhart and Noonan started their second attempt on June 1 in Miami. They stopped in Venezuela, Brazil, Senegal, Chad, Sudan, India, Burma and Singapore before reaching New Guinea on June 29. There, mechanics overhauled the Electra's two 550-horsepower Pratt & Whitney engines.
The flight to Howland was the most treacherous leg of the effort. Earhart would be crossing two time zones and the international date line, meaning she would both take off from New Guinea and land on Howland on July 2.
The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca was stationed off Howland to help Earhart navigate by radio, and the U.S. government built a small airstrip at the island. A sailor stood atop an island house ready to communicate with Earhart with red signal flags, and an American official planned to give Earhart and Noonan red and yellow silk leis.
Throughout the long night, the Itasca received brief and cryptic radio messages from Earhart that suggested she was flying in overcast skies. The Itasca dispatched a barrage of replies to Earhart, but only once did she acknowledge hearing the cutter. With Noonan apparently telling her they were near Howland, Earhart circled the Electra at 1,000 feet and told the Itasca she was running low on fuel.
At 8:44 that morning, the Itasca received one final message from Earhart: "We are on a line of position 157-337. Will repeat this message on 6210 kilocycles. Wait, listening on 6210 kilocycles. We are running north and south." Earhart's transmission was so loud that the crew was certain she was near the island.
Although amateur radio operators claimed to have picked up signals from Earhart over the next few days -- signals that suggested she had crash-landed -- the Itasca never heard from her again. President Franklin Roosevelt ordered a massive search, involving planes from the carrier Lexington and float planes from the battleship Colorado.
In a note to Putnam before the flight, Earhart wrote: "I know that if I fail or if I am lost you will be blamed for allowing me to leave on this trip; the backers of the flight will be blamed and everyone connected with it. But it's my responsibility and mine alone."
Box Story: On the Internet
* To see a 30-second film of Amelia Earhart's last takeoff -- from Lae, New Guinea, on July 2, 1937 -- visit http://www.tighar.org/Projects/Earhart/a meliavideo.html.
* To browse the Earhart archive at Purdue University, which has more than 900 items, visit http://www.lib.purdue.edu/spcol/aearhart/.
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